Wednesday, 6 June 2018

With St George....

England  2  Nigeria  1

International Friendly

“We have to believe…” were the words of the England Captain Harry Kane as the World Cup 2018 loomed ever larger.

Once the calendar trips into June and the local petrol stations are banging out tacky flags to attach to our car roofs, while every third house has a Cross of St George hanging out of the window, you know that the jingoism and commercialism that surrounds any major football tournament is just a mere rendition of “No Surrender” away.

Yep, you’ve picked up on the cynicism already? Well, let’s be honest, in 1990 I thought it was ours for the taking, but the bloody Germans…..and then when Thirty Years of Hurts was certain to come to an end in 1996, it was those bloody Germans.

Since then it’s been the Argies, the Portuguese, the Germans again, the Brazilians and of course the geyser loving Vikings. You see, our hopes have always been dashed because of someone else, someone else strangely enough being better than us. That’s how it works, the best teams typically win things, and that’s why we are now Fifty years down the line, and for some it still hurts.

It doesn’t hurt me, I’m at a stage now where I really don’t care that much. I accept we are a second rate nation, and when it comes to the biggest of stages, the Germans, the Brazilians, the Portuguese, the Spaniards and such like will always have the edge.

I look at our group and would take second place to a very good but ageing Belgian side. If we are lucky we might draw another second rate nation in the last sixteen, and if we get through that, it will probably come to an end in the quarters. The reason it will come to an end in the quarters is because there are at least eight teams in the World better than England.

I’ve never watched an England International game before in my life, and the reasons are numerous.

Firstly it was simply travelling to London and getting tickets, then I started to question just how much I wanted to sit or stand in a crowd the took pride in booing national anthems, singing songs about the IRA and World Wars, and then of course getting involved in club rivalries and ultimately jeering players who happened to play for the wrong London club.

No, it wasn’t for me, so much so that I stopped watching the games on television, and furthermore, as squads were announced, I was finding I’d never heard of players? Dominic Solanke, Joe Gomez, James Tarkowski  and Lewis Cook, come one, I’m normally nodding off by the time Match of the Day is starting!

...In My Heart
So, to suggest I was approaching the upcoming World Cup with a lack of enthusiasm would probably be a good analysis, although not strictly accurate. I was looking forward to seeing some of the great players on display like Messi, Ronaldo, Salah, Dembele, Mbappe, De Bruyne and Coutinho, but no Lions were jumping out at me as the kind of footballers that lift you from your seat.

Mrs H suggested a couple of months ago that we get some of the cheap tickets that were on offer for the friendly against Nigeria. Principally so that young Master H could have the chance to see his heroes in action before they set off for Russia. I agreed with the idea and decided to approach it with an open mind.

With the morning of the game upon us we made our way to Stanmore and found a parking space for a tenner behind the local Lidl, the station car park was full, so thankfully we had a Plan B.

Four stops later and we were alighting at Wembley Park, now, the area around Wembley Stadium has changed beyond recognition since I was a regular visitor for Trophy, Vase and Play Off games pre the re-build. Back then it was a dump, an industrial wasteland with the only attractions being the Torch pub and if that was full, a six pack from one of the many off licences at the top end of Wembley Way. Ticket touts were plentiful as were the knock off merchandise sellers, but in both of those case’s that hasn’t and probably will never go away.

Wembley is proper smart these days. Modern tech businesses, educational facilities, smart apartments and retail units adorn the approaches to the stadium, it feels far more welcoming than it ever did. The stadium looks magnificent as you approach it, but if you swing a right and head for the London Designer Outlet, it goes up another notch.

Smart shops, nice restaurants, bars and a well set out Fan Zone are there to cater for the every need of the football fan. We arrived four hours before kick off, and to be honest, were never bored, and the atmosphere was very friendly and family orientated.

Posh Seats
Once inside the stadium it continues, we sat high up in the Gods behind the West goal, and had a quite magnificent view of the pitch. The catering facilities were well organised and despite a 70,000 crowd in the ground, it always felt comfortable.

Atmosphere wise, it was again, very much a family occasion, and apart from a few ditties coming from the opposite end and plenty of noise from the plentiful Nigerians amongst the crowd who certainly added to the event, it was pretty tame.

England played well in the first period and went in at half time with a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Gary Cahill and Kane. But, to be fair, Nigeria were awful. They looked like a side who had been paid a significant amount of money to simply turn up get rolled over to keep the home fans entertained by seeing plenty of goals flying in past them.

They decided to try a bit in the second period and scored early on through Arsenal’s Alex Iwobe, but thereafter the game petered out into one full of substitutes, stoppages and play that in general left you watching the clock somewhat.

So what purpose did it serve? For me it did two things. Firstly, it was a family occasion and many young children got the chance to see their heroes, some for the first time, and all for a tenner. That can’t be taken away and many memories will have been made. Secondly though, it probably made the FA a fair chunk of money through ticket sales, merchandise and general human consumption.

Ok - It's Impressive
But while the kids were happy, what about the cynics? Before I answer that, I would say that getting out of the stadium, up Wembley Way and onto the tube was pretty straightforward under the circumstances and for that the authorities should be applauded. So the fact we were on the M1 and heading North in pretty quick time was a bonus, but has watching England in the flesh made me want to go again, and do I think they have any better chance of winning the World Cup before I went?

I would go again, maybe for a competitive game, but I suspect the whole ambience of the occasion may be somewhat different. I wouldn’t rush back to a Friendly game though that is nothing more than an exhibition match, unless maybe it was one of the superpowers.

The Away End - They Were In No Hurry!
This England side will not win the World Cup, it lacks creativity, inventiveness and that maverick footballer who can turn a game in a moment. They have some very good footballers, excellent footballers in fact, but World Class footballers? No, and that’s where the difference lies, last eight, at best!

On that bombshell, the season is now over for Bobbles Blog, it’s been a blast, thank you for reading, thank you for the feedback, and thank you for not suing!

Enjoy the World Cup…….

Friday, 1 June 2018

Cheshire Scramble

FC St Helens  2  Cheadle Town Reserves  0

Cheshire Football League – First Division

With news breaking on the Thursday that four teams were being promoted from the top tier of the Cheshire League to Step 6, the number of vacant spaces for 2018-19 was confirmed as being five.

Four of the spaces were to replace the promoted teams, and a further place was available to fill the vacancy created by the departure of Rudheath Social at the start of the current campaign.

The promotion scramble was very much on, and with Daten already assured of a promotion place, and Egerton almost mathematically certain, it meant three from the foursome of Lostock Gralam, Pilkington, Middlewich Town and FC St Helens were going to be the fortunate ones.

Going into the Saturday, the big game was Lostock Gralam v Pilkington, whereas Middlewich were entertaining Halebank, but my choice was FC St Helens v Cheadle Town Reserves.

I must admit I’d not done my research properly regarding St Helens, I’d got it into my head that they played on one of the grass pitches at Ruskin Drive, the new home of St Helens Town, but that was purely on the basis they were playing a game their earlier in the season on the infamous night of the floodlight switch off when visiting Abbey Hulton were about to take a penalty in their game at Town.

Social Club
It turns out that was something of a one off, as the actual ground of FC St Helens is Windleshaw Sports, which to be fair is only a stones throw away from Ruskin Drive.

Upon leaving the East Lancashire Road on a beautifully sunny day, the sat-nav took me through the pleasant outskirt of Windle before I located the Windleshaw Sports ground down the narrow terraced streets. The car park was already full so I found a space on the street outside and took the short walk up through the gates.

Two teams were busy warming up, which always comes as a relief at this time of the year which has been renowned for ‘no shows’. To be fair though, my experience is that the Cheshire League is very reliable when it comes to the late season fixtures and it’s pretty rare that a cry off occurs. I was still a touch nervous though as visiting Cheadle Town Reserves had not been able to fulfil a fixture a couple of weeks back at AFC Macclesfield, but it appears that was very much an isolated incident.

Nursing Home
My eyes lit up at the sight of an open clubhouse, and very nice it was too. It came as a bit of a surprise to see they’d produced a programme for the game as well, their first ever so it appears. A decent number of folk had decided to pop down and watch the game so consequently the clubhouse was doing a brisk trade.

FC St Helens are a young club, only formed a few years ago. They do seem to have some connection with St Helens Town via the Junior section, but I’m not sure how formal this is. I did wonder whether the formation of the club had anything to do with the ongoing problems Town were having finding a home in the area, but either way, they are a club in their own right and the notes in the programme talked about applying for Step 6 status next season should they get promotion this time around. Ambition is clearly not in short supply!

The ground is fully enclosed and railed on two sides, with plenty of scope for expansion. Given the proximity of housing (and a care home) on all four sides, I’m not sure how viable it would be to get floodlights, but Town managed it a couple of hundred yards away, so arguably why not?

With the visitors bottom of the table, I was expecting a reasonably comfortable home victory, but in fairness to Cheadle they put up a great effort and certainly showed no evidence of going through any motions. Integrity is vitally important at this stage of the season with promotion at stake so it was good to see that sides don’t simply turn up and see the game out.

Match Action
A goal in each half on the back of a solid rather than spectacular performance saw St Helens take the three points, with Mick Houghton and George Mylona being the players to find the net.

Elsewhere, Pilkington won 4-1 at Lostock Gralam while Middlewich recorded a comfortable victory. 
This now meant promotion was in the hands of Middlewich and St Helens, with Pilkington having secured it and Lostock having to rely on others.

If those two sides were to avoid defeat the following midweek then promotion would be assured, and given I’m writing this after those games, I can confirm that both will be Premier Division sides next season!

A really enjoyable day out at a friendly and progressive football club, next season will be tough, with some very stoing sides in the Premier Division, but we do have a remarkable situation whereby three years ago we did begin to wonder whether we would see senior non-league football in St Helens again. Now we could potentially have two in a years time!

Keep an eye on them, in fact no, pay them a visit…….

Urban Yet Rural

Wednesday, 23 May 2018


Jubilee Sports  3  Swinton Athletic  0

Sheffield County Senior League – Premier Division

A lad I work with used to play in the Sheffield County Senior League, and one of his fondest memories was of playing in away games at Jubilee Sports.

I’d never really paid much attention to the clubs name, but it appears Jubilee was the name of an ale made by the Carter, Milner and Bird brewery that was based on Clay Wheels Lane in Hillsborough.

Jubilee Sports was effectively the sports and social club arm of the brewery and their facilities also sat on Clay Wheels Lane, next door to where the hops and barley were conjoined!

Whenever a team visited Jubilee Sports, after the game the hosts were kind enough to leave a crate of Jubilee Stout for the players and management to enjoy. I could start to see why my colleague enjoyed his encounters with them so much!

The Jube
Jubilee Stout is a local but legendary Milk Stout. It was smooth and creamy say the reviews, but the last review I could find on RateBeer was from ten years ago? Does it still exist? It appears not, or at least it’s incredibly hard to find, and just as the beer disappeared, Jubilee Sports Football Club also disappeared from their home and ended up playing at a school pitch at Chaucer School, less than half a mile away up Halifax Road.

Apparently they were forced to moved due to the dimensions of the pitch, but, almost un-noticed their home ground on Full Time changed from Chaucer School to Clay Wheels Lane over the last couple of months, and it was only because a Kempster Forum member pointed it out that it came to my attention.

With very few options for the 19th May, I earmarked it as my game of choice, but in the preceding twenty four hours up to the game, every match in the County Senior League for that date and dates beyond the 19th were either declared as 0-0 draws or Home / Away wins. By 11am on Saturday morning, the game against champions Swinton Athletic was to be the final game of the season in the entire league, clearly some teams had decided to call it quits before completing their fixtures.

Looking Towards Hillsborough
It certainly put some doubt in my mind, but texts to both clubs confirmed the game was going to take place, so I could travel the relatively short distance with some confidence. I wasn’t 100% confident over the kick off time so worked on the principle of arriving before 2pm to be sure of seeing the game.

The ground sits a few hundred yards down Clay Wheels Lane on the right, and is virtually opposite the Niagara Sports Ground that itself is adjacent to the Leppings Lane End at Sheffield Wednesday. It reminded me a bit of the Civil Service Ground in Ecclesfield in that you enter along a driveway that runs alongside the rear of the pitch, before parking up next door to the large social club complex.

The dressing rooms are on the ground floor, with the bar and balcony above.  Arriving at the ground quite early, I was one of the first to take a seat upstairs and look out over the pitch as the home officials put up the nets.

Two teams arrived in due course, but suddenly we had a problem. Word was reaching the bar area that Swinton weren’t that keen on playing, and were prepared to forfeit the game to the tune of a 10-0 defeat!

In The Distance - Where The Brewery Once Stood
The next rumour to make its way up the stairs was that Swinton had forgotten to bring a kit with them, and were having to borrow an alternative from Jubilee, and the finally, having begrudgingly agreed to play the fixture, the proviso was that it was two halves of thirty minutes only!

What was indeed true and what was Chinese Whispers I couldn’t tell you, but what I can say is that Swinton had eleven players and substitutes, they had their own kit and the referee played a full ninety minutes.

A decent crowd assembled on a sunny and warm day, with many of them taking advantage of some al-fresco drinking on the balcony. I recognised a few faces from within the traveling fraternity, but most seemed to be regulars at the sports and social club, or ‘The Jube’ as it is known as locally.

Swinton having already won the league, were certainly not playing at full pace, but at the same time they weren’t going through the motions either. Jubilee on the other hand had a real determination to get something from the fixture, which they duly did.

Clay Wheels Lane
Goals from Daniel Barnsley, Charlie Hobson and James Gamble saw the hosts record a comfortable victory while playing some good football on a decent surface. Back at their spiritual home, with facilities of their own, it would not surprise me at all if Jubilee were to push on next season and be in contention.

Whether they can find an old supply of Stout to leave in the visitors dressing room, I’m somewhat less confident about!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Bitter Sweet Rawdon

Alwoodley  0  Rawdon Old Boys  2

West Riding County FA – Challenge Cup Final

For some inexplicable reason, I’d never managed to visit the impressive West Riding County FA ground in the South Leeds village of Woodlesford.

It’s probably because I tend not to go to Cup Finals, and consequently I’ve never been to the Principality Stadium in Cardiff (except to see Madonna!), nor have I been to Moorways Stadium in Derby, or indeed the Lancashire FA Ground in Leyland. I did once go to Holmes Park in Leicester, but that was by accident rather than design when another game I’d set out to see was postponed and I happened to stumble across it.

So why now? Well, I’d heard it reported that Bradford based Route One Rovers had made an application to move to Step 6 at the end of the current season, and as part of that application they had stated their intention to move to Woodlesford as their facilities in Esholt were not up to the required standard. It was enough to tempt me off my backside and go and have a look at it.

With a plethora of finals to choose from, I opted for the Challenge Cup competition, which to my understanding is the second most senior of the competitions in the County. The highest ranked of course being the Senior Cup, which is competed for by sides from Step 6 upwards, and has already been won this season by Farsley Celtic.

Rawdon Old Boys, who have won the First Division of the West Yorkshire League and move to Step 7 next season, were playing Yorkshire Amateur League side Alwoodley who were based in North Leeds. Alwoodley had already accounted for Ilkley Town, Golcar United, Aberford Albion and Horbury Town who all in theory play at a higher level, so clearly they were certainly no mugs. Golcar in fact could still win the West Riding County Amateur League so that victory was a major turn up.

The ground at Woodlesford is certainly impressive and clearly the money from player fines has been well spent! A decent sized car park leads to some turnstiles, and to the right of the entrance is a large seated stand that runs the full length of the pitch. Opposite is a grass bank that provides an excellent elevated viewing position. While behind the goal are the dressing rooms, offices and a large clubhouse area. Clearly it’s a facility used on a daily basis, and with a further area upstairs (presumably offices), it’s very smart indeed.

The Business End
The pitch is a 4G variety that was installed in the last close season, while of course it has powerful floodlights. If Route One Rovers are to decamp here, and money to hire it appears not to be a problem, then they’ve got themselves a very impressive home indeed. That should all be revealed in the next week or so.

The bar and the cafeteria were doing a roaring trade on a clear yet cool evening, with what I would estimate as a crowd of around 300 inside the ground, equally split between both sides and a good 
sprinkling of neutrals and blazers!

The first half was pretty even, with little in the way of clear cut chances, but early in the second period Daz Nicholls put Rawdon into the lead with a close range header from a corner that gave the Alwoodley   goalkeeper no chance at all.

Bank Siders
Minutes later it was 2-0 when some excellent passing football opened up Alwoodley and found Chris Softley on the edge of the six yard box. He manged to squeeze the ball past the goalkeeper, however, joy turned to tragedy as it became instantly clear that Softley had injured himself, badly, in scoring the goal.

Stood behind the goal, I could see the sickening extent of the injury, with the bottom half of his lower leg hanging at forty five degrees. Clearly it was broken and badly, in two places it was later reported. 
He was very quickly attended to by members of both sides as an ambulance was called.

Forty five minutes later and Softley had very carefully been lifted into the back of an ambulance and was on his way to hospital. It was an awful injury and it’s not nice to see a man in such distress and pain, but the way he was cared for and re-assured was first class. The round of applause from all sides of the ground as he was lifted into the ambulance must have been heart-warming for him.

Part of me expected the game to be abandoned if I’m honest, but with it being a prestigious Cup Final and with both sides seemingly determined to play on (as I’m sure the stricken Softley would have wanted), we got back underway.

I did think the remainder of the game would have been played with a lack of competitive edge given what had gone before, but I was wrong. To both sides credit they gave it their all for the last half an hour, and while Alwoodley threw everything at Rawdon, they couldn’t make the breakthrough.

Is That Bez From The Happy Mondays On The Right?
At the final whistle Alwoodley sank to their knees, they had put up a superb fight, while Rawdon celebrated a League and Cup double. While there was clearly every reason to celebrate, the celebrations were overshadowed somewhat given what had happened to their team mate.

Many of the after match messages of congratulations on social media also included plenty of well wishes for the man that was quite rightly named Man of the Match, Chris Softley.

I hope he makes a full recovery and returns to playing football sooner rather than later. A player of his quality will be a huge asset as a very good Rawdon Old Boys side pits itself at Step 7 for the first time.

Alwoodley can certainly play at a higher level, but I guess in their case we need to wait and see what move they make next. They would certainly be a great asset in the West Yorkshire League.

The Sad Sight Of Chris Softley Leaving The Field

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Mythical Beast

Arthurlie  0  Hurlford United  3

Scottish Juniors – West Super League Premier Division

It was like some mythical beast.

I’d been listening for several years about just how awesome the Scottish Juniors was, in terms of the grounds, the atmosphere, the football and the general ambience that surrounds the competition.

One bloke I know who has travelled the World watching football, still claims the best period of his jaunts was when he spent a couple of years North of the border.

My old mate Jamesie has been travelling up every July and August now for several years, and for months afterwards waxes lyrical about the trips, while another fella I know who lives in Bolton travels up every week to pick up a Juniors game.

Tales of Auchinleck Talbot v Cumnock Juniors, Kilbirnie Ladeside v Beith Juniors, Pollok v Arthurlie, police on horseback, heaving terraces, officials taking pelters, scotch pies, Bucky and Tennents became commonplace, but up until now, that’s all it was, simply someone else’s tales.

Dunterlie Park
So, just what is the Scottish Juniors? Well, it’s a competition in its own right, affiliated to the Scottish FA, but in essence completely separate entity. I suppose you could argue that its Scottish non-league, but it sits outside of any pyramid system, and as the Scottish ‘Seniors’ have created a pyramid of its own via the pre-existing Highland League and the recently formed Lowland League, which are effectively non-league, it’s almost became more distanced from the perceived mainstream of Scottish football.

That said, things have moved on in recent years, by various means the more successful clubs within the Juniors can now compete in the Scottish FA Cup, which is a positive move towards something like meaningful integration.

But, in real terms, the Scottish Juniors, certainly in the Western Region which encompasses Glasgow and Ayrshire, is arguably of a higher standard, at its top end than say Scottish Division Three. The subtle difference being that in Division Three they are ‘professionals’ whereas in the Juniors they are ‘amateurs’. I would imagine a good number of Juniors earn more in ‘expenses’ than the professionals do in wages. But that is a matter that will always be to a large degree, unproven.

Warm Up
So why can’t the Seniors and Juniors get together and sort this out, create a proper pyramid, and allow clubs like Auchinleck Talbot, Linlithgow Rose, Bo’Ness United and Bonnyrigg Rose to replace some of the dead wood higher up the rankings? The answer is not straightforward, but I suspect it’s about ego, protectionism, empires and money. 

Interestingly, a number of the Eastern Juniors have applied to join the East of Scotland League to give themselves a chance of progressing to the Lowland League and ultimately the Scottish League. If that trend were to continue , and especially in the West, we’d have a revolution to contend with.

The next few years would be very interesting indeed, but  one thing the Juniors is not big on, is red tape, so ground grading, floodlights and such like are not determining factors in terms of your progress and success. That of course would have to change, and for many, that may be a move too far.

So, as far as I was concerned this was a mythical beast, because I’d heard so much about it, yet never seen it, and being realistic, not really likely to see it unless I went significantly out of my way to do so. Put simply, it wasn’t on the radar nor was it likely to ever be, unless….

The Bottom End (The Hole?)
Unless of course the new MD of our business sector is based in Glasgow and decides that it’s my turn to head North of the border to attend a meeting. I can’t say as I was overwhelmed by the prospect because whichever way I looked at it, it was going to be a ball ache, and given our tightened expenses policy, I only had a few viable options available to me.

But then, I thought about making a cursory check of fixtures, but given how late in the season it was (the end), I wasn’t overly confident. I did check the Juniors but the games are released only a week or so in advance, so nothing was doing. Until, as I say, a week before when a raft of Junior games came onto the radar for the night before my meeting, bingo…

Based on our expenses policy, I could get a train up the day before (day of the games), get a hotel (noting the spend limits) then travel back the following evening, and playing my cards right get a free evening meal out of it as well!

What had originally been a trip I’d been avoiding organising became sorted within about twenty minutes. Trains, hotels, the game, the lot! Amazing how the little things can inspire you to get off your arse isn’t it?

Pie Stall
Arthurlie v Hurlford United, two struggling sides in the Western Region top flight, but two former Scottish Junior Cup winners, a fifteen minute train journey from Glasgow Central, and a recommended boozer right outside the turnstiles, I love it when a last minute plan comes together.

The journey to Glasgow involved three trains, with the final one from Manchester being the longest jaunt, around three and a half hours. Eventually, having left Carlisle and meandered via Lockerbie alongside the M74 we eventually pulled into the final halt and I could check in to the nearby Jury’s Inn. Suitably refreshed after an obligatory Spoons Burger & Beer deal, it was time to go in search of the mythical beast!

Arthurlie are located in Barrhead, which is a fifteen minute train trip South West on the line that goes to Kilmarnock (where visiting Hurlford are based). As the train pulled in to Barrhead I could see the ground from the train and with players clearly warming up on the pitch I took a very short walk over the road to The Brig for a couple of scoops.

It was a great boozer, very much like the Duke of York in Belfast, in the sense that it had loads of football memorabilia all over the walls. It also appeared quite neutral with Celtic and Rangers in equal measures, but many of the programmes on the display were absolute classics, including a few from Arthurlie.

Away Fans Congregate
Arthurlie have been around for donkeys years, the eighteen hundreds, so with a rich history, they’ve also had their moments as a football club. Once a Scottish League club at the turn of the twentieth century, they’ve become established as a Junior club and had mixed degrees of success, but the most notable being the famous Junior Cup victory over neighbours and rivals Pollok.

Dunterlie Park was described to me by Jamesie as ‘Porn’ and to be fair, I can’t disagree with him. You enter via the turnstiles (as opposed to over the fence I guess) and in front of you is some old terracing with various steps and angles, that narrows down to the West side of the ground where the numbers of steps increase again before they peak on the half way line where they are now covered by a large enclosure.

The steps reduce again until they reach the bottom end where the changing rooms are, while on the East side it’s just a narrow area of terracing. If you want a drink or a deep fried pie then the tea bar is to the left as you walk in, otherwise, no beer, no floodlights and no seats.

You could shut your eyes and imagine what it would be like with a big crowd crammed onto the terraces, very special I would imagine, but tonight around 200 had paid the six pounds to get in, with a large number having travelled the fourteen miles from Kilmarnock.

In their last home game against Beith, Arthurlie shipped eight goals, so there was a bit of trepidation amongst the home support, especially fifteen minutes in when they could and should have been three goals down.

The Road Side
A goal didn’t arrive until just before the interval and that was for the visitors who had been the dominant side throughout the half. Standard wise it was hard to compare it to anything South of the border, but I’ll stick my neck out and say it was Step 5 / Step 4?

Playing up the slope in the second half, Hurlford got a second from the penalty spot. The decision to give a penalty went down badly with the home support who unleashed a less than complimentary appraisal of the referee’s performance. I wasn’t sure which ‘hole’ they were referring to, but it was clear what they were suggesting he stuck in it!

A third goal came in the latter stages of the game from a free kick that the goalkeeper should have done better with. It was really unfortunate for the Arthurlie goalkeeper who for me was the man of the match, pulling off save after save as Hurlford pushed forward.

So that was it, 0-3, and Arthurlie look destined to finish next to bottom in the table. I’m not sure what the implication of that is because historically that would mean relegation. But with the league due to increase in size and be renamed the ‘Premiership’ next season, they may well be safe?

A last snifter in the Brig coincided with me being able to watch Derby County fail once again in the play-offs, before the train back to Central.

The mythical beast had finally been sighted, and you know what, part of me has suddenly got the desire to find out a bit more, experience a bit more, taste a bit more of that Juniors atmosphere that is so unique, so unique that many will travel the World, yet still keep coming back.

Auchinleck in August anyone?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Hymns & Arias

Swansea City  1  Stoke City  2

English Premiership

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Swansea City.

It stems back to the late Seventies and  early Eighties when they had a side that won promotion for three consecutive seasons from the Fourth Division to the then First Division. And for a period in the early part of the season in the top flight, actually lead the league.

They did eventually end up finishing in sixth place, but the team that included the likes of Robbie James, John Toshack, Colin Irwin, Bob Latchford and Alan Curtis were a breath of fresh air and certainly put the wind up the old guard.

They were relegated the following season and over a number of years the decline was more gradual than the climb, but even so it was stark. Only a last day victory stopped them from dropping into the Conference in 2002.

Then they did it all over again, but not quite so quickly! From near oblivion in 2002, they moved from the Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium in 2005, and by 2011 they were competing in the Premier League.

The Liberty
Under Brendan Rogers, and then Michael Laudrup they played some quite beautiful football, ok, it was never going to win the league, but mid-table finishes and a League Cup win, combined with a prolonged run in the Europa League, were just rewards for the sheer brilliance they were serving up.

I loved watching them, in fact, I don’t mind admitting that during my forays onto FIFA with young Master Hatt, I more often than not set myself up as Swansea City. I also loved the atmosphere they created at the Liberty that came through brilliantly on the TV, ‘Hymns & Arias’ when the crowd was in full voice was spine tingling.

I’ve only ever been to Swansea once. It would have been around the time the club first got into the Premier League. I was staying overnight in Baglan on a Friday prior to watching a game in Port Talbot that night. I got the train into Swansea and had a wander down to the Marina for a few pints. 

The Marina was lovely, but the area around the station less so. It was outside the station that I saw the iconic words “Ambition Is Critical” embedded into the concourse. I had assumed they were the poetic words of Dylan Thomas, as backed up by the quite brilliant yet dark film ‘Twin Town’ starring Rhys Ifans, but it appears they weren’t his words at all.

Twin Teams For A Twin Town
Twin Town, now that was a film, if ever a film could showcase all that is both great and bad about a City then that would be it. So many brilliant moments, so very Welsh, but so very, very funny.

I travelled past the Liberty Stadium that day on the train and did wonder how long it would take before I could get myself down for a game. To be honest, I always thought it would be a really tough gig trying to get tickets, but when they came on sale for what at the time appeared to be a potentially crucial game against Stoke City, I went online and within minutes one was being spat out by my printer.

It’s not been a great season for the Swans. Paul Clement had shocking start and was sacked, so in came former Owl Carlos Carvahal who clearly had a new dream!

Carlos had a great start and looked like the saviour, but it all went belly up and by the time I was getting in the car for what initially I thought we be a tasty dog-eat-dog survival battle, I was effectively going to a dead rubber because Stoke were doomed and barring a modern day miracle, so were the Swans.

The Away End - In Plaid Cymru Red
I don’t mind the journey down to this part of the World. The M42 and M5 are a bit dull, but by the time you’ve hopped on the M50 and got to Ross-on-Wye, the scenery is lovely all the way down to the M4 at Newport (which in itself is equally lovely in a different way!)

The M4 wends its way past Cardiff and Bridgend before arriving at Port Talbot, which again has a certain urban/rural beauty about it, not least those huge floodlights at Aberavon RFC. Just beyond Port Talbot you are crossing the bridge and leaving the motorway to take the road past the Bay Studios into Abertawe, where of course, ambition is indeed critical.

I found a car park by accident, it was at the back of the Boss Brewery. I popped in for a pint and asked if it was ok to leave my car. The answer was a positive one and it turned out to be a great move as I was straight out afterwards with no problems at all.

English Or Welsh - Take Your Pick
Outside the ground the atmosphere was raucous but good natured. Stoke had taken over the Harvester pub that backs onto the stadium concourse and were regaling us with songs about ten German bombers being downed by the RAF from Stafford. Swansea’s support were gathered outside Frankie & Benny’s next door, but not a hint of bother. Had it mattered, I’m not so sure the atmosphere would have been quite so cordial.

The ground needs very little in terms of description other than it holds 20,000 and is in the typical bowl shape that we see at Leicester for example, albeit slightly smaller. I chose to sit behind the South goal where the view was very good. The atmosphere was at the other end of the ground though, where the Stoke fans were magnificent, and a clutch of Swans sat adjacent in the East stand were doing their best to reciprocate.

It was a strange atmosphere to be fair. The Stoke fans were having a party combined with a bit of gallows humour, while the Swans fans had the gallows humour, but the atmosphere was very flat at times, while also bordering on toxic given the vitriol aimed at Chairman Huw Jenkins and the clubs American owners.

As for the game, Swansea took the lead in the fourteenth minute through Andy King, but by half time Stoke had turned it on its head thanks to goals from Badou Ndiaye and Peter Crouch.

Shaqiri managed to miss a penalty early in the second half, but despite Swans having plenty of the ball in the final third of the pitch, they had no one who seemed capable of putting the ball in the net.

Premier League Football - But When May We See It Again?
The clubs PA announcer asked that no one went on the pitch at the final whistle, and when Anthony Taylor ended the game quite abruptly with no added time, it was kind of strange and muted. No one went on the pitch, Tammy Abraham applauded the Swans fans (he’ll be loaned out in the Premier League next season – the new Patrick Bamford), and the crowd filed away. The Stoke fans sang ‘Delilah’ while everyone else went home.

As I drove out of Swansea, the commentary team on BBC Radio Wales had mixed views. Grateful and honoured to have been part of the last seven years and the success that has brought, but at the same time, deeply concerned about the direction the club is going in, especially in terms of the current ownership.

Only one meaningful version of ‘Hymns & Arias’ was sung all afternoon, and I think that says it all, but you know what? I joined in!

Monday, 14 May 2018

Rural Bolton

Bolton County  5  Manchester Gregorians  0

Manchester Football League – Premier Division

I must admit, I’ve never seen a football match played within the confines of the City of Bolton.

Ok, I’ve been to Bolton Wanderers, but not the old Burnden Park home that was in the City itself, it was the new ground, ‘The Reebok’ as it was at the time, but that is located in Horwich, and it’s not the same so I'm told?

Perhaps somewhat tenuously as well I’ve had the pleasure of numerous days out at Radcliffe Borough, but again, it’s good, but it’s not quite Bolton is it!

For some reason, Bolton isn’t endowed with non-league football teams considering it’s size, but it does have a Manchester League side in the form of Bolton County. Is Bolton indeed a County? Anyway…

I tend to take trips to the Manchester League either at the start of the season in midweek, or towards the end, also typically midweek or a Saturday if it suits.

Pasty Shop!
Of all the sides at home today, County was the one that stood out as being the one I’d yet to make a visit to, my Bolton virginity was set to be lost!

Bolton isn’t a bad place to drive through to be honest, the A666 which links the M61 runs straight through the middle of the City, past where the old Burnden Park was located and as far as I was concerned, it was a right and a right again onto Radcliffe Road and out into the less populated and slightly more rural surroundings of Darcy Lever. A doddle, if only all forward thinking Cities had road links like Bolton (Bradford take note!)

In fact, I don’t recall ever being at a more rural location in the Manchester League. As you travel along Radcliffe Road, the new build houses turn to green fields resided in by horses. The entry to the ground is down a track to the left past some kennels, and there it is, surrounded by hedges on all four sides. A scene of tranquility and parking chaos (if you arrive too early!) in terms of getting out again

With ground located I decided to take a walk to the Levers Arms that I’d spotted back down in the village, with very few customers in-situ it was as good a place as any to catch up on the latest football news, and of course the reflections and fall out of the previous days release of the Step 1 to Step 4 constitutions. Morpeth to Yaxley, yes, get in!

I See Trees Of Green......
Bolton County is quite an interesting story. They joined the West Lancashire League in 2004, playing for the majority of the time in the Second Division, bar a fleeting two season diversion into the First Division, but then for some reason in 2016 they elected to join the Manchester League.

A third place finish in the First Division last season meant they earned promotion to the top flight and Step 7 for the start of the current campaign, the move justified you might argue?

Anyway, this season has seen them pitching just below the half way point, and going into the last game of the season against Manchester Gregorians, hopes were high that they would finish on a positive note.

The ground on Radcliffe Road is railed on the three sides, while the end to the West (nearest Bolton) is a large expanse that I believe has also been used as a pitch in the past. A single story building sits adjacent to the car park behind the East goal and in it are the dressing rooms and a tea bar serving the finest meat and potato pasties!

Where The Houses Stop - Bolton County Starts
The game was pretty one sided against a side I saw just a few days earlier record a very useful and deserved victory over Dukinfield Town. It was three nil at half time, and two more goals in the second period saw the hots go nap (as they used to say in the tabloids back in the Seventies and Eighties!)

Romain Maubaret grabbed a brace, while Dimitri Wasaulua, Tom Axon-Smith and Danny Hill also found the net. Tom Aspen was sent off for the hosts as the game entered stoppage time, but by now the points were well and truly safe.

The result means Gregs finish third from bottom, and to be fair under normal circumstances that would mean relegation, but with restructuring looking like taking two clubs from the top flight into the North West Counties League, it may well be that they earn a reprieve. I hope so because they struck me as a well run and professional club when I saw them at home four days ago.

As for Bolton County, it’s a season to build on. They had some good support on a fine day, and if they can make some additions to the squad then why shouldn’t they be looking at a top six finish next time round?

Bolton, it’s a footballing hotbed you know??